By Elle Haywood
My experience as an ambassador for the Holocaust Education Trust, and the importance of Holocaust Memorial Day.
The 27th of January each year marks Holocaust Memorial Day across the world, which is the liberation of notorious concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Institutions across the UK recognise this memorial and pay tribute through events, activities and talks in remembrance of those who lost their lives during the holocaust from the period of 1933 – 1945. It is also a time to talk about the atrocities that occurred during this time in history, and to ensure that genocide of this scale never happens again. The holocaust, also known as Sho’ah and Huban, was the systematic extermination by Nazi Germany and its collaborators of over 6 million Jewish people by cremation, firing squad and gas chambers. This religious and political anti-Semitism is rooted in the ideology that the Jewish race was evil and trying to take over the world, which was fuelled by Adolf Hitler and his belief in total annihilation. This barbaric act of state-supported genocide continued beyond the end of World War Two until the liberation of camps by the allies in the mid 20th century. A detailed history of the event can be read here: https://www.britannica.com/event/Holocaust
In 2014, I was elected by my sixth form to be an ambassador for the Holocaust Education Trust as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz programme. The aims of HET are to educate young people across the UK about the holocaust and how the lessons learnt from it are relevant in today’s society. The foundation was formed in 1988 and it trains teachers and students within various programmes, whilst also providing a platform for Holocaust survivors to work with UK media and parliament in continuing the discussion of their experiences. On the LFA programme, I attended a training day in central London with many other students to be fully educated on the subject and trained in how to bring these messages back to the school to teach other students. We were also able to meet with one of the survivors, Susan Pollack, who was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. She spoke to us about her time in the camps and why she works with the trust.
Susan was one of the most inspiring individuals I have ever encountered. Her ability to carry on after all that she had endured and her determination to help others who had survived the camps left me in awe. She faced severe antisemitism during her life in Hungary before the camps, and lost over 50 relatives during WWII to antisemitism laws. Her bravery in telling us her story allowed us to pass on her messages of hope and to keep a promise of making sure that the memories of her and her family pass on to future generations. We must do all that we can to continue informing others in order to best assist the prevention of history repeating itself.
The next stage was a visit to the old Jewish village of Krakow, Auschwitz One, Auschwitz-Birkenau. My experience there will haunt me for the rest of my life. Both of the camps were an endless barren wasteland of barbed wire, crumbling shacks and the remains of the incineration chambers. Walking around reminded me of a prison, but one that would have been filled with people who had committed no crimes but of their religion, ethnicity and heritage; who had suffered at the hands of hatred and evil. The camps held rooms filled with pictures of those who had lived there, as well as all of their possessions. From a mountain of hair still tied up with the ribbons of young girls, to the piles of glasses and watches of the elderly who knew that this was the end of the road. To this day I still think about the room filled purely with the shoes of every person who walked those very halls, but unlike myself, did not get to walk out again. It is something that we as a society should think about every now and again, how simple it is to take off our shoes when we get home before then being warmly greeted by our friends and family. We get to put back on those shoes and continue with our lives, whereas so many people would never get to put theirs on again.
The concentration camps epitomise a literal hell on Earth. The empty gas chamber sent me into a cold sweat, being in the confined stone room of which those four walls were the final sight that millions of people saw before their last breath. There is no comprehension of the fear that they felt, and that this damnation was due to no fault of their own. In threadbare pyjamas, starving and with certain death staring them in the face, it’s a situation no human should ever have to endure. The incineration pits held the ashes of so many individuals who had a background and a story; a family and a life. Yet within a few short moments, they were reduced to dust in the air. Their stories deserve to be told, their lives deserve to be remembered and it is our responsibility to honour their memories.
As the evening drew to a close, we lit candles on the train tracks at the end of the camps near the mass burial sites. Each candle represented a life lost and the light of their memory living on. This simple light repelled the darkness of this cruel place and was a message of renewed hope that everyone there shared.
The holocaust was over 70 years ago, and unfortunately, there are still so many traces of antisemitism, homophobia, xenophobia and racism in our world. It is down to us and our leaders to fight against these acts of hatred. We are not born into this world hating others, and there is no place for isolation, fascism and ignorance in the 21st century. It is important to read about the genocide that took place, to feel anger at the horrors so many innocent people faced and to protect others in our lives from facing persecution such as this. We can teach others the lessons we have learnt, open our lives to inclusivity and promise to not let history repeat itself. This can be from small acts of speaking out against bullying and hate speech, to protests supporting equality and talking about history. Acceptance, tolerance and freedom are obtainable if we ensure that hope trumps hate and that we can forgive, but never forget.
You can read more about the wonderful work of HET here: https://www.het.org.uk/about